Tuesday, October 22, 2013

On the teaching of writing

I sat down over the weekend to draft some notes for the writing class I’m teaching for Concord-Carlisle Adult and Community Education, which began last night. “I’ve taught writing here off and on for the past ten years,” I scribbled as I began working on an introduction.

Then I paused. Ten years? Was that right? I thought back and remembered the circumstances of my life when I started teaching: I had recently started a new job in Cambridge, which made it possible to commute to Concord in time for the class, and I was married but with no children.

Come to think of it, that was 1994.

I’ve been teaching this class for nearly 20 years? I mused. That didn’t sound right either. I didn’t start writing for the Boston Globe until 2005. I didn’t even write for the Concord Academy Magazine or any of my smaller clients until after 2000. In 1994, I wasn’t published anywhere but the Carlisle Mosquito

So what possibly gave me the idea to teach a writing class?

But the more I thought about it, the more the answer seemed obvious to me, just as it must have back then when I had the temerity to apply for a job as a writing instructor even though I wasn’t really much of a published writer.

I taught it because it was something I enjoyed.

In the almost twenty years since, my writing career has become fleshed out, even if I’m still not exactly on the short list for a Pulitzer Prize. I’ve become a weekly arts columnist and regular feature writer for the Globe; I contribute four alumni profiles per issue of the Concord Academy Magazine; I wrote the lead feature for the inaugural issue of a regional magazine called NorthBridge.

And yet the class I teach isn’t really about how to write for magazines and newspapers; even if it were, I’m not sure I’d have all that much insight to offer. The class is about writing just for the love of writing, and as I remembered the twenty-something-year-old me who taught that first session, I wonder if I’m any more qualified now than I was then. I’m no expert on writing, but I’m good at making it fun, because I have so much fun with it myself. People return to my class not because they receive such insightful critique from me but because every week we all have fun getting together to write.

Looking back, I think what actually gave me the temerity to teach writing when I was an unpublished, nonprofessional writer was something poet Natalie Goldberg says: If you want to get good at something, teach it.

Her words remind me of the maxim that medical students use regarding new procedures: Watch it once; do it once; teach it once. We learn through doing, but perhaps we also learn through leading.

I’m no expert on writing. I’m just an avid practitioner. If that’s enough to motivate the people who come to my class, then I’ve offered them the best I can give. Even though I have more publishing credits now than twenty years ago, I may not have much more wisdom to impart. I just really like writing, as much now as I did back then. And if all I can do is communicate that passion, it still somehow seems to be enough.

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